Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Following bribery scandal, Romanian parliament passes privacy bill

By Calin Cosmaciuc for Southeast European Times in Bucharest -- 19/11/07

Romania's parliament recently passed a new privacy bill that some say will suppress anti-corruption efforts. It stipulates jail terms for anyone who releases the contents of intercepted conversations. Right groups, including the country's Helsinki Committee, warn that the bill "puts the media under a lot of pressure" and have called on President Traian Basescu to exercise his veto power.

Lawmakers passed the bill just weeks after Romanian public television (TVR) broadcast a video of Agriculture Minister Decebal Traian Remes accepting a bribe. Some say the country's political leaders appear more anxious to punish investigative reporters than deal with corruption.

The Remes scandal -- one of the biggest to hit the country -- resulted in the minister's resignation. The video also implicated former Agriculture Minister Ioan Muresan and local businessman Gheorghe Ciorba.

A hidden camera recorded a meeting in a Bucharest cafe between Remes and Muresan, during which Muresan gave Remes an envelope. The TVR broadcast also included taped phone conversations with Ciorba, who is heard saying he wanted to win tenders worth millions of euro in institutions that were co-ordinated by Remes.

In the phone calls, Ciorba asked Muresan to be an intermediary with Remes, offering 15,000 euros, traditional sausages and a new car.

After the broadcast aired, Remes was asked to leave office by Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, while authorities began investigating the source of the story. "It appears that the images were produced by the organisation that was investigating the case," Tariceanu said.

For many Romanians, the tape simply confirmed their suspicions."This is how things work here. I would have been surprised if the minister had refused the money," Adrian Barbu, a young doctor from Constanta, told Southeast European Times. "It was important because everybody saw the real faces of the people they voted for," he said.

"It was normal for TVR to broadcast the tape," said media analyst Iulian Comanescu. "But they should have balanced the story and then shown it to the people. Instead, they presented a bomb."

Last week, during an NGO conference in Bucharest, US Ambassador to Romania Nicholas Taubman joined the debate. "It was striking to me that when a television station recently aired an investigative story about alleged official corruption, the reaction of some was to attack the media outlet and the journalists who had prepared the report, rather than to focus on the serious allegations brought forward by the media," he said.

He called on parliament not to "intimidate" independent media or "criminalise" journalistic efforts.

Romania's Chamber of Deputies President Bogdan Olteanu insists that journalists will remain exempt from prosecution, due to laws protecting freedom of the press. The new legislation, he said, intends to punish state authorities who leak private information about citizens.

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